This is the fifth of a series discussing bird photography.



(Note:  First off: I owe everyone apologies.  I had intended to release this blog months ago, but life got in the way.  I got sick and then busy at work and by the time I was able to get back into photography, I had acquired the 300mm f/4 Pro and decided I should see how the lens impacted the E-M1’s performance, and whether that would change any of my settings.  That exercise has taken quite a while, but I didn’t want to delay this blog any longer.  I missed a good part of the Spring migration here in the States, but I did get some opportunity to try out the 300mm Pro in a recent trip to New Zealand.  So, some good news is that I have a whole crop of new pictures to post, almost all of them with Olympus.  In all, though, 2016 has not been a good year for me to do photography, and I’ll likely continue to be busy for most of the rest of it, but I will do my best to keep more blogs coming with better regularity.)

A Northern Flicker peers at us from on high. (Click to view full-size)

A Northern Flicker peers at us from on high at Black Marsh Trail, Maryland. A dark bird with a bright background is always a challenge.
(Click to view full-size)

Earlier in 2015 I attended a class on photographing birds in flight.  The class was centered on high-end Canon and Nikon bodies, and while I went there with my 7D MK II, as I was digesting the information in the back of my mind, I was considering how I could use the knowledge with the E-M1.  It’s not new to me that the E-M1 requires some different approaches to tackle birds in flight, but I was surprised at the stark differences between what these excellent instructors advised for DSLR BIF photography versus what I had been doing based on my experience with the E-M1.  Some of these differences only apply to the capabilities of higher-end DSLRs that have been adapted for more specialized types of shooting, and I am happy to say that Olympus also appears to be heading in this direction.

It’s also important to remember that there are many different ways to do bird photography, and some of it is going to come down to user preferences or style.  What I want to focus on here, though, are techniques that maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of my particular cameras.  Because those characteristics are so different, the techniques sometimes are as well.  Could I reverse them by applying them to the other camera and expect them to still work?  Probably, or I could even try a third or fourth way — and any one of those might work better for me personally.  In any case, if anyone has some alternative suggestions, I would love to hear them and try them out.  Consider this more a starting point for discussion rather than an end point.

Lastly, one of my biggest takeaways (and frustrations) from learning bird photography has been that the settings for birds in flight is dramatically different from the settings for a perched or wading bird.  This is particularly true on the E-M1, which does not have a complex-enough autofocus to effectively deal with BIF in complicated background conditions — which generally result in a shot of the larger surroundings.  The 300mm Pro has not changed that fact, but instead made it more apparent precisely because its speed revealed to me that the E-M1-300mm Pro combo is fast enough to reliably do BIF against a clear sky.  For that reason, I highly recommend using two Mysets for both a BIF and a perched bird situation, and assign both Mysets to one of your function buttons.  The 7d Mk II also has its limitations in doing one or the other, but they are far less debilitating.  I will revisit these points throughout the blog.


General Settings:

For either system, the instructors’  first advice was to turn off any feature or function that you won’t be using.  These functions take up processing time, and every micro-second counts.  For everything else, I have created the below chart to summarize the differences, and will go into why they are different below:

Setting Canon 7D Mk II

(Instructor’s Advice)

Olympus E-M1

(What I Am Doing)

Olympus E-M1 Mk II

(What I May Do)

Mode Manual Mode Shutter Priority Manual Mode
Shutter Speed 1/1000 – 1/1250 1/1000 – 1/1250 1/1000 – 1/1250
Aperture Stopped down one (f/8 with the 100-400mm, or f/10 with the teleconverter) Auto, but usually will be wide open Wide Open (f/4 with the 300mm Pro, or f/5.6 with the teleconverter)
ISO Auto, with maximum set at 5000 Manually set as low as I can while still having a high enough Shutter Speed Auto, with maximum set at 3200
Exposure Compensation N/A Adjusts Aperture on the fly, then ISO if needed TBD
White Balance Auto Auto Auto
Auto Focus Mode AI Servo, Release Priority S-AF+MF or C-AF Low, Focus Priority S-AF+MF or CAF-Low, Release Priority
Focus Points Center 9 (cross) for BIF, center for perched birds Center 9 (block) or All for BIF, single for perched birds TBD
Metering Mode Spot, sometimes Evaluative Spot Spot
Image Stabilization Advised Off, but I leave On IS-3 IS Sync

The settings’ main objective is to get exposure right as quickly as possible and conducive to the conditions of the scene.  I am going to assume everyone understands the fundamental exposure relationship of Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO, and the way these settings can change other characteristics of a photo — which ultimately decides how you set the three settings to balance exposure.  While these are not the only settings I will be discussing, the characteristics we want for bird photography are (in order of importance):

    1. Shutter Speed: For any action, fast shutter speed is paramount.  This not only ensures you will get the action tack-sharp, but also eliminates blur from camera shake, which can be exaggerated at telephoto magnifications.  For BIF, a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second is needed, with 1/1250 second or higher preferred (though not so much higher that ISO becomes too high in compensation).  For slower action the required speed is less, and if there is little to no movement in the scene, much slower speeds will work fine.  Camera shake could become an issue again at lower speeds, perhaps necessitating either electronic image stabilization or a support system.
    2. IMG_0885

      This American Kestrel posing on a power line outside of Blackwater NWR in eastern Maryland was one of our most exciting moments of the day. In fact, a number of birders caught this fellow, who I am told carried a tag on the right wing and had flown down from New Jersey.
      (Click to view full-size)

      Aperture: A certain level of depth of field is very helpful to bird photography to ensure the bird’s full wingspan is in focus.  This also helps autofocus meet the demands of maintaining lock on a moving target, by giving some extra space in front of and behind the bird that is still acceptably sharp, in case the focus point was a little off.  There are three different factors determining depth of field (distance to target, focal length, and aperture).  There is oftentimes little leeway in altering the first two.  In setting aperture, however, we run into a conflicting-purpose between enabling high shutter speed and getting that deep depth of field.  DSLR shooters optimally shoot BIF at f/5.6 or f/8 for this purpose, and also want to be stopped down at least one f-stop from wide open for optimal lens sharpness.  µ4/3, however, has a distinct advantage here.  µ4/3 lenses are commonly sharp wide open, and the crop factor doubles the depth of field.  Thus µ4/3 can be shot optimally at f/2.8 or f/4 (or whatever the max aperture of the lens), achieving all of the aforementioned benefits the DSLR users are getting, but retaining twice the light gathering ability (allowing for twice the shutter speed).  Really, for µ4/3 there is little need to ever stop down from wide open (except in extreme depth of field situations), though if lighting is bright enough to allow it, it doesn’t hurt).

    3. ISO just needs to be as low as it can to minimize noise while still balancing exposure — whatever value that ends up being.  The first two settings are pretty rigid, so ISO should be the first one allowed to fluctuate.  In poor lighting conditions, gathering enough light with such a high shutter speed can be asking quite a lot, even if you have Aperture open as wide as the lens can go, so you will have to be prepared to let ISO go up.

The above priorities are universal for BIF regardless of camera.  The next thing to discuss is how much of the above settings are you going to leave up to the camera’s automation, versus setting yourself — and this is where there will start to be differences.  I am going to start with the Canon, discuss how such implementations work with the E-M1, and end with my preferred settings for the E-M1.

A perched on a branch. (Click to view full-size)

A Common Grackle perched on a branch at Bombay Hook.
(Click to view full-size)

Bird photography requires such fast adjustments that it is not advisable to make more than one adjustment on the fly.  By the time you’ve made your adjustments, the moment is over.  However, it is also inadvisable to give too much control to the camera.  A camera’s auto programing doesn’t really know what the photographer wants, so it guesses.  To minimize this guesswork and maximize reaction time, the best solution (in my opinion) is to set a few static controls beforehand (and then largely leave them alone), make on-the-fly adjustments for one (maybe two) setting at your fingertips, and allow the camera to automatically do the math for only one remaining setting. Because the camera is looking to zero-balance the exposure, and all of the other parameters are already set manually, the camera mathematically will only have one answer to choose, and so will always get it right.

You may already see where this line of thinking is headed:  Aperture is manually set and doesn’t really need to be changed thereafter.  (For µ4/3 it can generally be whatever is wide open, but for Canon it should be at least f/5.6.)  Shutter Speed is manually controlled and usually kept very high, but can be lowered if needed and the action allows.  ISO is allowed to fluctuate automatically per the lighting conditions from moment to moment, but I advise going into the menu and mandating a maximum value at whatever level your tolerance for noise allows. (If you are doing this for an OM-D E-M1, I recommend 3200 as the limit.  For Canon, the ISO cap can be larger to compensate for the smaller Aperture.)

With the Canon, this is all best accomplished in Manual Mode, but in effect we are going more for a hybrid Shutter + Aperture Priority Mode.  In its truest form, Manual Mode lets the photographer decide what the proper exposure is, and even ISO would be set manually.  The camera still meters and lets the photographer know what it thinks is the proper exposure, but that is only for reference.  The balancing act of Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO is all decided by the photographer. But as I discussed above, that takes too long for action photography, particularly the highly changeable lighting conditions of nature action photography.  By allowing ISO to be automatic instead, we get convenient, automatic adjustments for subtle changes in lighting.


Exposure Compensation Woes:

We still need one more piece.  We also need an Exposure Compensation capability for whenever we come across those tricky lighting conditions that fool the camera, and this is where this type of setup falls down a bit, particularly for the E-M1…

This Osprey and its mate built a nest on a telephone pole. As Catherine took the shot, she had to bump up the exposure compensation to get be able to see the dark feathers. (Click to view full-size)

This Osprey and its mate built a nest on a nearby telephone pole. As Catherine took the shot, she had to bump up the exposure compensation to be able to see the dark feathers.  The grey sky turned almost white, but this is an acceptable sacrifice.
(Click to view full-size)

Sometimes the scene is such that the camera will not be able to meter it properly.  The most common type of example of this is shooting at a dark subject (or foreground) with a bright background.  Shooting up into trees or at a subject in the snow are the most common scenarios in bird photography where this becomes a problem, but can also manifest when shooting a dark flying bird against a bright sky.  A similar but opposite issue can occur when shooting very light colored birds against a dark background.  Either way, the camera will most likely under- or over-expose.  (Dealing with insufficient dynamic range is a separate but related issue, which I will get into later.)

This isn’t a problem if we have the time for full Manual Mode, where ISO is manually controlled as well.  We can see the improper exposure in the EVF, (or after a test shot if it is a DSLR), and adjust one or more of the parameters any way we want to compensate.  In our faster, hybrid, semi-automatic mode where we gave over ISO control to the camera, however, adjusting Aperture or Shutter Speed manually to compensate won’t help, because the camera would counter-adjust the ISO to maintain the exposure balance it erroneously thought was correct.  Accordingly, Exposure Compensation allows manual shifting of the point of balance to the left or the right without allowing the camera’s Auto-ISO to rebalance the exposure.  Bumping up Exposure Compensation will decrease shutter speed if shooting wide open, so it is best to have some shutter speed to spare and still get the movement sharp.  ISO may have to go up to compensate.  Another option (one that sometimes has to be done to some degree anyway) is to bring out the shadows in post, but the more this is done, the more noise there will be in those underexposed areas.

Both cameras have problems with Exposure Compensation.  For Olympus, while the option for Auto ISO does exist for the E-M1’s Manual Mode, there is no Exposure Compensation for Manual Mode.  Not even all DLSRs have this, but it looks like it will be available for Olympus’ 2016 models, starting with the PEN-F. While the Canon 7D Mk II has the ability, its implementation of Exposure Compensation leaves a lot to be desired.  Exposure Compensation is not a magic bullet — it still has to change Aperture and/or Shutter Speed to attain the exposure the photographer wants.  But we already have those settings the way we want them, and while we could be willing to make some concessions with those values, the camera doesn’t let us decide, and (as explained earlier) it guesses which values to compromise.  This guesswork in particular is not as logical in the Canon as I would have liked.  As a result, I can end up with Aperture and Shutter Speed values that I never would have chosen if I had the option.  The ability to set priority to which parameter I want adjusted, and to set limits, would be a welcome (and easily accomplished) firmware upgrade.

A Gouldian Finch (endemic to Australia) at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.
(Click to view full-size)

While the above all works well enough (not perfect) for the Canon DSLR, I don’t think it is the optimal setup for the E-M1, given its different set of strengths and weaknesses.  For one, better control over exposure is one of the strengths of µ4/3 (real-time feedback of its EVF, one-touch Exposure Compensation dial, and overall better implementation of Exposure Compensation), so there is less reason to leave things to the camera’s whim.  Having this available is a big help.  When I was in the BIF photography class, I watched the instructors pass up shots with their Canon and Nikon DSLRs that I was able to get with my E-M1 — not because of any difference in the the cameras’ technical prowess, but because their BIF-only control setups did not have anything on-hand to account for tricky lighting.

Secondly, I would never before have considered using Auto ISO on µ4/3.  I have always felt that noise is too much of a problem for the system to do that.  Full Frame cameras can handle Auto ISO well, APSC a little worse, and for µ4/3 the leeway is the smallest.  That said, as much as I hate noise, I concede the instructors’ point that it is better to get a grainy picture (which can be fixed at the cost of some sharpness) than a blurry one (which cannot).  Furthermore, acquiring good noise reduction software has afforded me a lot more leeway.  (I’ve mentioned Macphun’s Noiseless as a major upgrade for what I had before, and I know there are other highly effective noise reduction software options now available — making noise a much smaller issue than it used to be.)  As a result, my wife and I are experimenting with Auto-ISO on the E-M1, to see just how far it can be stretched and relied upon if lighting conditions were so extreme it warranted its use, particularly since it looks like the E-M1 Mk II will have Exposure Compensation for Manual Mode.

For the first-generation E-M1, to keep noise down and Exposure Compensation available, I have instead been using Shutter Priority for BIF photography (or any action), and manual ISO.  I set the minimum shutter speed I need to get a shot — usually the same speeds as above.  Aperture is left to be controlled by the camera to adjust for subtle, moment-to-moment changes in lighting, and any adjustments I need to make to the overall balance with Exposure Compensation will move Aperture first.  Only if Aperture is already wide open will the E-M1 move ISO.  If the lighting is overall too dim, I manually increase ISO accordingly.  If, on the other hand, I see that my Aperture values are being stopped down by the camera, I have the option of increasing Shutter Speed or lowering ISO to ensure I am getting the best image quality possible.  This still allows for the automatic balancing of exposure settings, prevents the chaos of Auto ISO, maintains the deep depth of field I need, and allows me to keep Shutter Speed at a safe level controlled by another dial.  This, in my opinion, is the best general settings for the current generation E-M1 against BIF.

Getting the underside of a bird in flight usually means it is in shadow, and exposure compensation is needed to properly expose the feather details. Sometimes, this leaves the sky blown out, but this is an acceptable sacrifice. (Click to view full-size)

Getting the underside of a bird in flight usually means it is in shadow, and exposure compensation is needed to properly expose the feather details. Sometimes, this leaves the sky blown out (not a problem in this case), but this is an acceptable sacrifice.  This shot was made with the 7D MK II.
(Click to view full-size)


Non-BIF Adjustments:

When I get the exposure of a scene wrong, such as this shot of a Red Bellied Woodpecker taken with the 7D MK II, the shot can sometimes be salvaged by converting it in post processing with an artistic filter. (Click to view full-size)

When I get the exposure of a scene wrong, such as this grossly underexposed Red-Bellied Woodpecker eating berries (taken with the 7D MK II), I try salvaging it in post with an artistic filter. This is the Colored Charcoal Sketch filter from Macphun’s FX Photo Studio CK. The red blob in the background is a male Northern Cardinal.
(Click to view full-size)

If I am not shooting birds in flight, I look to make adjustments for both cameras.  The above-mentioned hybrid Manual Mode still works okay for the Canon, and I have a lot more leeway as the high Shutter Speeds are no longer required for freezing fast motion, but this method loses out unnecessarily on noise performance and Exposure Compensation.  Shutter Priority for the Olympus is also just ok, as it isn’t giving me direct control of the parameters that matter most in those conditions.  For these reasons, I tend to shoot both cameras in Aperture Priority (mostly wide open) and ISO 200 (set, not automatically fluctuating) for most of my non-action photography needs.  The camera is left to adjust Shutter Speed, but with Olympus’ excellent IBIS (and the Canon’s OIS), camera shake is not much of an issue, and as long as the Shutter Speed is enough to capture any movement, I can focus on controlling depth of field.  The Exposure Compensation dial still works the same, but I know it will only adjust Shutter Speed.  Again, I recommend using both cameras’ excellent settings programs to record the different setups and switch between them on the fly.  This is the only way to make the transition from a perched to flying bird (or vice versa) quickly enough.  Another option for the Canon ( for either camera, really) is to just turn Auto ISO off and go fully manual, but for flitting birds there still may not be enough time for making manual adjustments on the fly.

I use Aperture Priority so much that I’ll reluctantly admit to you all that I have in the past shot BIF in Aperture Priority Mode, for no good reasons other than habit and expedience.  While I don’t recommend it, it can be sufficient, but only in bright and stable lighting conditions where getting the parameters slightly wrong wont burn me as much.  Since I am shooting wide open (and then leaving Aperture alone) and setting the ISO manually, the camera automatically sets the highest shutter speed possible to balance the exposure.  If it’s enough, no problem.  If it isn’t, I get a blurry shot and have to raise ISO to compensate for the next time (as long as the lighting doesn’t alter and change the equation).  Also, Exposure Compensation affects Shutter Speed, which is not ideal.  All these are reasons not to use this method, but if you are in a pinch and don’t have the time to change your settings, its better to try this than not take the shot at all.


Techniques to Getting Metering Right:

This was perched amidst shadowy branches at a avery busy lakeside park in Maryland. Brilliant as he was, hundreds of runners and strollers passed right by him without every seeing him. (Click to view full-size)

This Black-Crowned Night Heron was perched amidst shadowy branches at a very busy lakeside park in Maryland. Brilliant as he was, hundreds of runners and strollers passed right by him without even seeing him. Shadows can play havoc on metering and white balance.
(Click to view full-size)

For the Olympus, I recommend Spot Metering to isolate a bird among the often tricky backgrounds.  I don’t think the Canon Spot Meters as well, but seems less fussy with Evaluative Metering, so I would recommend trying Spot first, and if it isn’t working, switch to Evaluative.

As I mentioned earlier, the first on-the-fly technique to deal with tricky lighting is to increase Exposure Compensation until the bird’s colors come to life, even though this will most certainly blow out the sky (usually an acceptable price to pay).  The E-M1’s Exposure Compensation is easier to access than the Canon’s, requiring just a turn of the front wheel.  The Canon’s can be set up a number of ways, but to set it for the front wheel, the new back lever must also be held down.  This is the go-to option for BIF situations.

The second method can only be used if the bird remains motionless, but has the advantage of completely eliminating dynamic range as a limitation.  Quickly switch to one of the HDR modes and snap off a three-shot, exposure bracketed burst.  The E-M1 is infinitely more convenient for this than the Canon, which requires going into the menu to set Exposure Bracketing.  On the E-M1 or E-M5 Mk II, pressing the HDR button will get you there.  More than likely, HDR 2 (if you want to get an camera-processed JPEG) would be required to get the dynamic range needed, but that depends on the situation.

The third option is a flash, which can assist with backlit issues common to bird photography and even help keep Shutter Speeds high.  I have tried this method with the E-M1 and the FL-600R against close-up birds from my backyard, but I don’t prefer the look I have managed.  I freely admit it’s most likely because at this point in time I am not skilled enough in flash usage to quickly dial in the right amount of flash compensation strength.  I really should take the time to learn how to employ flash more effectively with bird photography as I have started doing with macro photography.  If I do, perhaps I will add one more post to this series, but until then, I’ll leave the advising on flash techniques to those who are more accomplished with it.  A strong flash will be required to light up a bird that is in distant branches, perhaps even with the use of a flash extender (which I don’t own).  I don’t think a flash will hurt a bird any more than it does a human, and in my experience they don’t seem to be startled as much by them as I would have thought.  As to whether flash could be used with BIF would entirely depend on the distances involved.

I don’t have many sharp examples of BIF with the E-M1 (yet). This gull was taken recently in New Zealand while practicing with the 300mm Pro. The reason why I thought it was interesting enough to post was to show that even on a cloudy day (ISO was at 1000) and amidst a busy, practically camouflaging background, the E-M1’s C-AF can follow a bird in flight. 
(Click to view full-size)


Techniques to Getting Focus with the E-M1:

The E-M1's strength is contras detection, but it is a hybrid system that can use phase detection as well. (Click to view full-size)

The E-M1’s strength is focusing and re-focusing on high contrast areas until they are razor sharp, but it is a hybrid system that can use the much faster phase detection as well.
(Click to view full-size)

I discussed in the last post the C-AF problems with the Olympus system.  While they have improved, my wife still hardly ever uses it, preferring the reliability she is used to of S-AF.  This was one of the reasons I wanted to spend more time with it before putting this post out.  Another common focusing problem faced with bird photography is that when shooting into trees, autofocus systems — regardless of brand, generation or grade — will easily lock onto nearby branches instead of the bird perched within them.  This result is usually a shot with a branch in focus while the bird is not.  So, while I generally set a wider block of focus points (usually nine or even all if there is no background to confuse the AF) if I am shooting BIF, I prefer the smallest center focusing point when isolating a bird in trees.  Doing the opposite — using the center focus point for BIF or all focus points for a bird in foliage — won’t work well at all, so this is an important difference to record in the presets.

Even this does not always work.  Instead of fighting the AF, the best thing to do is switch to manual focus.  The Olympus Pro lenses have a Focus Clutch mechanism on the barrel.  Simply pulling the clutch back switches to manual focus, and the focusing mode automatically switches from AF to SF.  Pushing it forward again re-engages AF.  I use the MF assist setting called Focus Peaking so that the E-M1 highlights the area in focus, and made the color of the highlights red for ease of use.  Note, however, that whenever switching wholesale from AF to MF, you will have to find the starting focus point again.  For that reason, I prefer the below option instead:

Focusing on an bird amidst falling snow and dense branches is much easier when using settings like S-AF+MF. (Click to view full-size)

Focusing on a bird amidst falling snow and dense branches is much easier when using settings like S-AF+MF. Even at these distances, had the shot been focused on the branch in front, this Downy Woodpecker would not have been captured as sharply as she was.
(Click to view full-size)

A quicker and even more accurate way is to use the E-M1’s focusing mode S-AF+MF, which I always use as a matter of habit, even over regular S-AF.  This has all the convenience of regular autofocus, but also allows the user to override the AF to manually get the bird in focus.  The way it works is to halfway depress the shutter for initial autofocus, and then — without releasing the shutter — move the manual focus ring for finer adjustments.  Because S-AF+MF expects the AF to get close enough for only minor manual focus adjustments, the manual ring adjustments are indeed finer than with the normal manual focus setting, and Focus Peaking works even more smoothly. This is opposed to standard manual focus mode adjustments, which have to be coarser to be able to move from one end of the focus range to the other without the user having to spin the focus ring over and over again.  S-AF+MF can, however, get a bit finicky, because if you take your finger off of the halfway depress before pressing down all the way to take the picture, the AF will re-engage, most likely to return to the point of focus it started with.  With practice, however, this is a very effective technique, and one that I use regularly.

One trick my wife really likes for the E-M1 is to toggle the x2 digital teleconverter in conjunction with S-AF+MF to be able to discern more clearly if the subject is in focus.  She shoots RAW, so the setting has no impact on the final image, but the EVF view zooms in twice as close to the subject.  She uses this to more accurately ensure focus on the bird, as opposed to its surroundings.  If we were to shoot JPEG, however, I would likely disable this ability on the E-M1.  The x2 digital teleconverter loses some image quality, and shouldn’t be used unless the added reach is absolutely necessary.  There is another manual focus assist option where magnification is enhanced 10x whenever the focus ring is moved.  We don’t use this often because we find the flickering from normal to 10x magnification and back again (whenever the focus ring is touched) to be somewhat disconcerting, but if you get used to it, it is another option.  Lastly, I would add a word of caution for using the 10x option for BIF, because unless the target distance is very far, it would make it exponentially easier to lose sight of the bird altogether.

With such a clear sky, I was getting a really good success rate with the E-M1's C-AF and all focus points used. In more cluttered backgrounds, the all focus points settings could backfire. (Click to view full-size)

With such a clear sky, I was getting a really good success rate with the E-M1’s C-AF and all focus points used, even on distant and fast moving birds. In more cluttered backgrounds, though, the all focus points settings could backfire, and zero in on the background.
(Click to view full-size)

For birds in flight, the situation is very different.  I am going to digress from settings for a moment to return to the topic of reviewing the E-M1’s BIF capabilities.  I spent the last month putting the 300mm Pro and the E-M1 through the paces for BIF.  As a result, I feel I now have a much greater understanding of the limitations of the E-M1 for BIF than I did when I wrote my last post.  The bottom line is that with a good lens and proper settings the E-M1 can keep up with a moving target, but it gets easily confused by backgrounds.  A skilled photographer can make up for this by keeping a single small focus point trained on the moving bird.  I’ll discuss this more in my next post on lenses, but even when I was successful at doing this, I was at times dissatisfied with the sharpness of the bird, which seemed odd for this amazing lens, and something I attribute to one or more of several potential issues:

  1. Since I was using the E-M1’s hybrid CDAF-PDAF system in these instances, I more than likely need to calibrate my lens, a point I touch on again near the end of this post.
  2. The 300mm Pro spoiled me for how sharp it is.  I believe it is sharper than my Canon L glass.  I could crop and crop and still have a usable shot.  The 40-150 Pro is like this too, but oftentimes still too short for the distances to make a difference.  So, I have been admittedly stretching the system’s capabilities to extreme levels with the amount of cropping I had done on some of these shots.  The added megapixels of the E-M1 Mk II may help with this issue.
  3.  There are limits to sharpness with such far distances for any camera, due to atmospheric conditions.  The Canon has about the same reach, so I intend to compare the two side by side and see if I get the same results for both.

We have found that if it doesn’t seem like the E-M1 is staying locked on the target, briefly lifting our finger off the shutter button and re-engaging it can help — perhaps pointing to why Catherine still prefers using S-AF.  It also has contributed to my bad habit of shooting short (perhaps one-second) bursts, oftentimes less than the action calls for, which I even do when using the Canon.  (The other reason comes from the Canon itself.)

Olympus has several continuous autofocus and burst rate combinations to choose from for BIF.  I only advocate trying one of them, C-AF+T and Low Burst Rate.  This combination only allows up to 6 frames per second (these numbers can be lowered in the menu settings), but I personally feel 6 is enough for flying birds.  There will be no EVF blackout or buffer problems, and the camera re-focuses between each shot.  If you are having difficulty keeping the bird in center frame, the tracking feature will attempt to move the active focus points to stay on the bird.  Olympus firmware 4.0 upgraded the PDAF algorithms in Sequential High shooting wit C-AF+Tr, which offers 9 frames per second.  However, I can’t really tell any difference in performance, and I personally feel there are too many compromises (see below).

Sometimes, its not your fault. The above shot was the ultimate photo bomb. Catherine was actually focusing on a duck when this gull flew right in between. (Click to view full-size)

Sometimes, it’s not your fault. In this ultimate photo bomb, Catherine was actually focusing on a duck when this gull flew right in between them.
(Click to view full-size)

Whenever you choose one of the Sequential High Burst Rates with C-AF, EVF blackout can occur unless you lower the resolution of the EVF.  It offers up to a whopping 10 frames per second (only with Release Priority On), which I think is overkill and results in way too many pictures to process.  I know that many bird photographers recommend 10 fps for BIF in order to get a nice wing position, but unless we are talking a songbird or something really fast, most bird wings don’t flap rapidly enough to need more than 6 fps to do this.  About the only time I can think of when I might want 10 fps is if I am trying to catch a bird fishing, where the action is lightning-fast and I want to capture that split second the fish gets snapped up.  That said, you can reduce the number of shots in the menu settings.  Another important point about high burst rate, and something that was only brought to my attention recently, is that you don’t get a true live view.  What you are actually getting is a replay of the last image taken, so in a way it is only “semi-live,” a 1/9th second delay of the true realtime image.  That leads me to wonder if the C-AF can even keep up with the burst rate, but with all the other issues to consider, I haven’t gotten around to testing this setting enough to find out.  Lastly, if you use either of the burst mode speeds with S-AF, you get a sort of focus trapping.  The entire burst relies on the initial focus of the first shot, and doesn’t attempt to refocus again.  If the target moves through that plane, it should come into focus.  For really fast moving birds, a High burst rate would increase those odds.

Choosing Sequential Low or Single Shot (there is no Sequential High version) Anti-Shock mode (denoted by the little diamond) offers the same respective frames per second as above.  They work exactly the same way, except that the first curtain shutter is electronic to prevent shutter shock.  While I am not aware of any detriments to using Anti-Shock mode for non-action photography, I feel the electronic first curtain is just another thing for the camera to work through, and slows down its processing speed too much.  I have seen this mode dramatically slow down the camera’s processing speed (particularly on the E-M5), though I am not sure if it happens all the time or with the E-M1.  Since there is no upside to doing so, I have not thoroughly tested it.  Choosing the E-M1’s Sequential Low or High Silent mode (denoted by the little heart) offers up to 5 or 11 frames per second, respectively, and can achieve shutter speeds up to 1/16000.  Both the first and second curtain are electronic, which gives off no shutter noise at all.  It is so silent you may wonder if you are actually shooting.  I talk about these settings more at the end of the post.


A Snow Goose taking wing at Bombay Hook, taken with the 7D Mk II. (Click to view full size)

A Snow Goose taking wing at Bombay Hook. This shot was taken with the 7D Mk II, which is very adept at catching focus quickly and following a moving target.
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Techniques to Getting Focus with the 7D Mk II:

My method of shooting with the Canon 7D Mk II is completely different.  I switch to C-AF comfortably, utilizing back button focusing — which I don’t use for the E-M1 (though it is possible).  My reasoning for using back button focusing on one and not the other is really only applicable to me.  Catherine doesn’t like back button focusing, and while she finds the Canon too heavy, she uses the E-M1 often.  Also, I wanted to differentiate the operation of the cameras as much as possible, because I felt that if they were set up too similarly (but still different), my muscle memory would get more easily confused between the two.  That said, back button focusing offers superb control over focusing without having to switch between S-AF and AF Servo, or engage additional settings (such as Focus Lock).  If you have had good success with using Olympus’ version of back-button focusing on the E-M1, I’d like to hear about it.  The 7D MK II’s back button focusing is certainly very effective.  If you want to understand more about back button focusing, Canon has several good You-Tube videos on what it is and how to set it up.  One of the things I don’t like about this setup is that regardless of the AF setting, I am always shooting in bursts even when I only want one shot.  This is the other reason I mentioned earlier as to why I developed a bad habit of depressing the shutter button for only very short bursts.

Similar to the E-M1, the 7D MK II has its own version of S-AF+MF called Lens Electronic MF.  This works with any lens with an AF/MF switch, and I have mine always engaged, allowing me to use manual focus whenever I want. This feature works the same as the E-M1 in that manual focus adjustments start from the point the autofocus left off, and because I use back button focusing, it is a very seamless transition from AF to MF that works exceedingly well. This is one of the areas where Canon’s interface requires fewer settings adjustments when switching from shooting BIF to perched birds.

A gull landing in an icy lake. Taken with the 7D Mk II. (Click to view full-size)

A gull landing in an icy lake, taken with the 7D Mk II.  Apologies for posting so many gulls in flight.  They’re common so they make good practice, and I have a lot of them.
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Canon’s AF system is very sophisticated, with seven focus point options to choose and three tracking settings of +/-2.  I prefer the 5 or 9 centered focus points to get the benefit of the cross AF points (my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens is too slow to utilize the dual cross point technology).  Tracking Sensitivity is essentially how fast the target moves across the camera’s focus points.  Acceleration/Deceleration Tracking is how erratic it changes speed and direction.  AF Point Switching is in case something comes between the camera and the target being tracked.  Canon conveniently sums up these variables into Cases 1-6.  Which is the best for BIF is up to debate.  Canon recommends Case 5 (0, 0, +1).  Renowned bird Photographer Art Morris uses Case 3 (-2, +2, +2).  I have seen other professionals recommend a custom combination of -2, 0, 0 for BIF.  I have tried them all, and in my opinion the Canon seems to nail focus really well either way.  That said, I do have a few observations to put this into context:

  • Tracking Sensitivity is mostly about how much I am panning, how good I am at keeping the target centered on the active focus points, or how fast the target is moving.  The more skilled an individual personally is at panning with the bird and trying to keep it center frame, the less this variable matters and the lower it can be.  If there is a good chance something will briefly cross in front of a target (a tree or another bird, whatever), making this setting less responsive also ensures it stays locked onto the original target.
  • Acceleration/Deceleration Tracking is much the same. Either the target may be moving erratically, or the steadiness of my hand as I pan can be similarly erratic.  If on a tripod and against large, graceful flyers, I might lower this setting.  However, hand-held and/or against more agile birds, I would raise it, more so if I have an unsteady hand.
  • AF Point Switching is only valid if Automatic AF switching is enabled (which allows the focus points to move from one target to another). The higher the setting, the more quickly the camera will hand over focus to new points.  I interpret this to mean that lower settings should theoretically keep the camera zeroed on the same target, but I should caveat that by admitting that I have not really been in conditions that stressed this as a factor, The birds I have shot have generally been in the open, so the risk of the camera acquiring another target was slim.  If that’s the case and my understanding is correct, set this parameter low. If you are amidst trees or shooting into a flock, raise it.  In any case, since I generally only enable the center focus point cluster, this setting has not really been an issue.


Focusing Tricks for Both Cameras:

I had always shot in the past using Focus Priority, but the DSLR Instructors advised Release Priority.  This is a setting deep in both cameras’ menus determining whether the shutter button will work if the target is not yet in focus.  Focus Priority means no, Release Priority means yes (and on the Canon there are gradients of priority between the two, affecting the amount of delay the camera will allow itself to get perfect focus).  My earlier thinking was that if the shot wasn’t in focus, I didn’t want it.  The instructors pointed out that a deep depth of field can mean a shot that isn’t technically in focus can still be sharp enough, so this setting improves keeper rate.  I have decided to adopt their way of thinking from now-on.

This dim, snowy landscape foiled the Canon's PDAF after a time, but CDAF still worked for a good while longer. (Click to view full-size)

This dim, snowy landscape foiled the Canon’s PDAF after a time, but in part due to the dark branches, the E-M1’s CDAF still worked for a good while longer, as this image shows.
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The tale of the two AFs is not always one-sided, despite my high praise of the Canon.  One winter evening, we were shooting songbirds in our backyard — Catherine with the E-M1 and I with the 7D MK II.  Despite the dwindling light, the scene was still relatively high contrast with bare, black trees limbs against dimly white snow.  As the sun sunk further, the Canon’s phase detection AF (PDAF) system slowed and quickly stopped working altogether, unable to lock onto anything in the low light.  The Olympus contrast-based AF (CDAF) (which is what it uses with single-shot), however, kept on going strong for at least another 15 minutes.  When a scene is high contrast, CDAF will outperform PDAF even in low light situations.  So, switching to S-AF for the E-M1 can improve focusing in high-contrast conditions where PDAF can fail.  With the hybrid focusing system of the E-M1, it is possible to choose which mode best fits the situation you are in.

A primary trick I have to focusing on small, moving objects with either camera is to aim at something bigger nearby and on the same focal plane.  For example, if I am shooting an eagle gliding across the water, I will shoot at the water beneath him.  For a bee hovering next to a flower, I will shoot the flower.  Having a little extra depth of field helps with this method, and it greatly improves my chances of getting a usable focus lock.

By pre-manual focusing on the feeder, and using my reflexes to snap a photo, I can get great shots of even tiny songbirds in flight. (Click to view full-size)

By pre-manual focusing on the feeder, and using my reflexes to snap a photo, I can easily get shots of even tiny songbirds in flight.
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Another, similar technique that can work well is called Focus Trapping.  As I described in the Olympus Bird Photography: Part 3 — Birding in Controlled Environments post, Focus Trapping doesn’t engage the autofocus at all.  Instead, the camera is set to manual focus and then is pre-focused to the direction and distance where the bird will fly through.  For best results, manually focus on something that is in the same area and distance (or judge the distance of the space you want to shoot to and set the focus using the distance scale on the lens, if there is one).  Just before a bird is coming into the focus zone, fire away on burst mode until it leaves the field of view.  For this to work requires the focus to have been set properly at the outset, the bird actually does fly where predicted, and the photographer’s reflexes are fast enough, but any camera can do it regardless of its technical capabilities.  Using a wider aperture will increase the depth of field, and using a wider angle lens will increase the chances of getting a fast-moving bird in the shot, so the actual parameters will vary greatly depending on the distances and speeds being dealt with.  While I tend to use this in my backyard when shooting remotely, it can be done anywhere.  This technique can require patience, as there is no telling if or when a bird will fly through the focus plane.

Meet the Fantail, one of New Zealand's coolest birds. Getting a clean shot of one in moving about ceaselessly fading light, however, was a huge challenge. (Click to view full-size)

Meet the Fantail, one of New Zealand’s coolest birds. Getting a clean shot of one moving about ceaselessly in fading light was a huge challenge.  Many of the shots I thought looked good on the viewfinder ended up less sharp than I had hoped.
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A high Shutter Speed is necessary for all of a bird in flight to be in sharp focus.  A technique that can be used to capture birds in flight with lower shutter speeds is panning, just as photographers do in motorsports.  It is possible, with good skill, to have most of the flying bird tack sharp.  Just like the wheels of a race car, however, the flapping wings will likely be blurred.  While I don’t personally find this effect with birds as pleasing as it is in motorsport photography, this could be an artistic choice to portray motion, or even a conscious sacrifice because of poor lighting.  We must pan anyway when we are trying to track a bird.  If you find panning difficult, zooming out a little can make it a little easier to keep the bird in frame.  One important thing I should mention is to try to get the center focus point on the body of the bird as opposed to the wings.  Though sometimes hard to do, this will help ensure the majority of the bird, particularly the head, is in focus.

As I have mentioned before, Mirrorless systems are almost always utilizing a focusing system that isolates points of contrast and adjusts back-and-forth until that line of contrast is razor sharp (CDAF).  This is highly accurate but a little slower focusing method than what DSLRs do.  The E-M1 in C-AF, however, has a hybrid capability that uses the same mathematic system of DSLRs (PDAF), which is a little faster and therefore better for action photography.  This means that E-M1 users should calibrate their lenses for PDAF variances for their specific camera body and lenses, just as DSLRs users must do.  I have tried this once with the 40-150 Pro, and came up with no adjustments necessary, so I am not sure if I even did the process correctly.  I will try the technique again with the 300mm Pro.

One last point I would like to make for both Olympus and Canon is that even though I bought x1.4 teleconverters for both systems, I have learned not to use either one for bird photography.  For one, I can’t see much difference in sharpness between using a teleconverter and cropping an image to fit the same field of view, perhaps because of how sharp my lenses are for both systems (in my case, the aforementioned 100-400 II for the Canon, and either the Pro 40-150 or Pro 300 for Olympus).  Secondly, the light loss of teleconverters slows down the camera — not just aperture, but more importantly AF focusing speed as well.  I know this issue has been debated by some professional wildlife photographers, and that there are some who swear by them even with crop sensor cameras and BIF.  Personally, I just don’t see teleconverters as worth it, at least for this genre.  Perhaps some individual teleconverter copies are better than others, varying the results.

Like the blur of wheel-spin in motorsports photography, having a slower shutter speed and panning smoothly with the bird can show a clear body while the wings are a blur. If the effect is something you like, it could be a way to get away with slower shutter speeds when there isn't much light. (Click to view full-size)

Like the blur of wheel-spin in motorsports photography, having a slower shutter speed and panning smoothly with the bird can create the above effect. If this is appealing, it could be a way to get away with slower shutter speeds when there isn’t much light.  Taken with the 7D Mk II.
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Dealing with Camera Shake:

Neither the Olympus nor the Canon can avoid the fact that shooting at super-telephoto magnifications stresses the need for rock-solid stability to extreme degrees (though Olympus’ IS Sync comes very close).  Any little movement will be greatly exaggerated and impact the sharpness of the shot, which is why a high shutter speed is the most important setting.  If your shutter speed is high enough, camera shake won’t be an issue.  But, that’s not the end of the discussion, because sometimes lighting will be such that shutter speeds won’t be high enough without raising ISO higher to unacceptable levels.

This image was one of the few I have taken with the 300mm f/2.8, which I rented for a few days. (Click to view full-size)

This image of a Little Green Heron was one of the few I have taken with the Olympus 4/3 300mm f/2.8, which I rented for a few days. Of course, using this large and heavy lens required a tripod.
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The immediate question is whether to use a tripod or monopod.  I went into that issue in my second post of the series, Olympus Bird Photography: Part 2 — Birding Excursions, where I lay out the pros and cons for a tripod (and why I don’t like monopods at all for bird photography).  For my longer Canon lens, there have been times where I have employed a tripod, 3-second shutter delay (I don’t own a remote shutter cable for the Canon, though it would help) and Mirror Lock (described below) to get a really distant shot acceptably sharp.  I have two different pictures of an Osprey sitting on the tree branch, eating his catch (one in the Birding Excursion post and the other in the previous post of this series), both taken at the same time and both taken from about as far away from the subject as I think is possible, forcing me to utilize all of these techniques.  Those samples easily represent the longest distance, usably sharp photos I have taken to-date.

Olympus’ in-body image stabilization (IBIS) is one of the system’s biggest strengths, but whether you are using that or the more commonly found optical image stabilization found in lenses, the DSLR instructors recommended turning off image stabilization on the grounds that it is not needed at such high shutter speeds, and that it is an extra function that at best slows down the camera’s processing, and at worst counteracts the movement of the photographer’s panning.  They are, of course, only referring to capturing birds in flight.  In this point I am not sure that I agree with them even for BIF.  For one, I think that the success rate of the Canon’s tracking is such that I can afford one vice to tie up the processor.  Two, the IS for either camera can be set to not react to horizontal movement (panning).  Three, I expect IS may have an affect on sharpness even at such high shutter speeds, if only by fractional degrees.  Most importantly, the IS stabilizes the view through the EVF/OVF, making it much easier to keep the target center frame.  Furthermore, I have found the super-potent Sync IS system of the E-M1 and the 300mm Pro is simply amazing, greatly reducing the need for a monopod or a tripod except in the most extreme conditions. That all said, I am keeping an open mind on the issue.

When shooting action, it is easy to get excited and lose stability. Stay calm and focus on technique. (Click to view full-size)

When shooting action, such as these two Willets fighting, it is easy to get excited and lose stability. Stay calm and focus on technique.
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I get a little extra hand-held stability by employing my shoulder strap via a technique I outlined in the post, Black Rapid Straps with Really Right Stuff Clamps — A Great Combination.  The idea is to hold the camera out away from the body, pulling on the sling to make it taut and provide extra stability.  While I lose the ability to look through the viewfinder, this can actually be a benefit as opposed to a problem.  By using the LCD and keeping both eyes open, this method, with practice, can help with acquiring a target with with the naked eye but not yet with the camera.  This technique works even better with the Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight, letting the site do the acquisition work in the way it was intended to.  I have provided a detailed explanation of the sight in the post How to Use the EE-1 Red Dot Sight, but I’d like to add one point to it here.  With additional practice since writing that post, I have decided that using the red dot sight for tracking a bird in flight is too imprecise.  I simply cannot see whether I am in proper focus or exposure until after the pass.  I recommend using the red dot sight for zeroing in on the bird, and then using the EVF or LCD for tracking and ensuring that the shots are good.

Like any DSLR, the Canon will suffer from mirror slap (the movement caused by the mirror raising and lowering) and I assume shutter shock as well (the movement caused by the shutter opening and closing).  Perhaps the bulk of a DSLR works in its favor to dampen some of the vibration.  The Mirror Lock setting negates mirror slap, but comes with its own issues.  I recommend when using it, have the camera on a tripod and use a remote trigger, because the shutter button has to be pressed multiple times.

Mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror to contend with, eliminating one issue, but some cameras (including the E-M1) can still have shutter shock.  Shutter shock is a very subtle blurring (some people notice it, some don’t) caused by the movement of the shutter.  It only occurs when shooting at speeds with high enough force to affect it, but slow enough for the sensor to register it, between 1/60 second and 1/320 second.  These are speeds typically below what we are shooting for birds in action, so Shutter Shock shouldn’t normally be a problem with this genre.  If however for some reason you find yourself shooting at those speeds (perhaps shooting birds perched in shady trees), and are seeing some slight blurriness introduced into your pictures, you might want to engage the Anti-Shock mode, which utilizes a first curtain electronic shutter to eliminate the problem.  The E-M1’s Silent Shutter mode, however, is a different story.   It utilizes full electronic curtain, eliminating shutter clicks and achieving shutter speeds up to 1/16,000 second.  That sounds great for bird photography, but it isn’t.  The mode suffers from rolling shutter effects, giving any fast and continuous movement a cartoony, stretched look.  (Of course, you may be going for that look — in which case, go for it.)  While panning with the bird may keep the body from stretching out, the flapping of the wings could still look abnormal.  In any case, I have never seen a bird spooked by the click of the E-M1’s regular shutter noise (nor the Canon’s, for the matter).  If a camera manufacturer ever comes out with a working global shutter (eliminating the rolling shutter problem), such a mode will likely become the norm for wildlife photography.  Until then, I would say that this mode is more for events such as weddings or concerts, where you don’t want to disturb the people around you.



Two Mourning Doves nuzzle on a cold winter day on our back deck. (Click to view full-size)

A Mourning Dove couple nuzzles and grooms each other on a cold winter day on our back deck.  This image was taken with the 40-150mm Pro with x1.4 teleconverter.
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